After a weekend in Raleigh, I’ve got a new motto for North Carolina’s capital: “Where the food’s so good, even the exercise is about eating.”
Our good friends Jeremy and Cassie live there, and they started sending us articles to prep. These stories tended to be headlined “Why You Must Eat Pizza in Raleigh” and “Raleigh’s Food & Drink Scene Looking Up in 2015.” I sensed a theme.
So we noshed through the city, whose cuisine surprised us at every turn. And then we saw the nuttiest food-centered workout imaginable.
The first standout thing: Even in the often macho, male-dominated restaurant industry, Raleigh’s top chef is a woman. Ashley Christensen won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast last year. She has five restaurants and bars in Raleigh, with a sixth on the way.
We tried two Christensen places, Beasley’s Chicken + Honey and Joule Coffee & Table. I’m not usually a fried chicken fan, but I will say Beasley’s chicken is especially juicy and tender. (Thirteen hours of brining helps.)
And despite its morning-smell of perking coffee, Joule becomes a sophisticated evening spot, with Carolina entrees like catfish, trout, and espresso-rubbed short ribs. A perfectly angled mirror strip let us watch the action behind the blue-walled coffee bar at all times.
Raleigh’s second surprise was its fusion cuisine. Our early favorite was Bida Manda, which infuses (way underrated) Laotian cooking with North Carolina influences. The restaurant’s approach was encapsulated in its shiny-yet-rustic bar. The wood looked like imported Laotian bamboo rods, our server explained, but it was actually from local North Carolina trees.
Another fave was Jose and Sons, where Southern meets Mexican in dishes like collard- green-wrapped tamales. Jose himself was eating those tamales at the huge round bar, and we chatted with him. “My sons did this,” he said in his Spanish accent, glancing around the space proudly.
And at Cala Vela, I had the best empanada of my life. The Piggly Wiggly featured the flakiest, butteriest crust possible, filled with the tang of Eastern Carolina barbecue. (Props to Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours for arranging this corner-spot find.)
Then there was that food-themed exercise. On Valentine’s Day, we got up early to watch the Krispy Kreme Challenge, celebrating the classic doughnut chain founded in North Carolina. This, folks, is a five-mile race that involves a dozen doughnuts—running 2.5 miles, downing 12 glazed rounds, and staggering another 2.5 miles back. What?!
Although top competitors had to be seen eating all the doughnuts, not everybody was in it to win it—many just ran back with full boxes in hand. What we loved, though, were the people dressed up, as heart-shaped candy or with doughnut inner tubes around their waists. Clearly, Raleigh is a town that takes eating to the max!
Look for more in San Antonio Magazine in a few months.